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A few months ago, I was sitting in a pew at church before Sacrament meeting. I had with me my wiggly one year-old son, William, and my five year-old daughter, Lizzy. William was squirming around, trying to get down and crawl away. I picked him up and pointed out all of the activity going on at the front of the chapel. I said, “Look, William, they are preparing the sacrament. In eleven more years, you will get to be up there doing that.” My daughter Lizzy heard this, bounced over to me, and asked, “And, Mommy, how many years will it be until I get to pass the sacrament?” She was beaming with excitement to hear the answer of how much sooner she would get to do something than her brother. My heart plunged. I have dreaded this question and, although I anticipated it coming at some point, still felt unprepared to answer it. I think that many women struggle to answer this innocent question from our daughters.

I started to reply to her that only deacons pass the sacrament, and that only boys get to be deacons. But as the sentence formed in my mind, I remembered that wasn’t always true. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe that we are in the same organization that existed in the primitive church, with all the same offices, callings, and sacred rites that existed when Christ established the church on earth with Peter as its leader. And at that time, with Peter as the prophet of the church, women served as deaconesses. In the primitive church, the church we claim to have reestablished, there were women deacons.

That women served as deaconesses in the early church is not really in dispute. Paul writes about women deaconesses as early as the sixth decade, about 30 years after the death of Christ. The presumed earliest mention of women deaconesses is in Romans 16:1, where Paul specifically refers to Phoebe as a deacon, though in English the word is changed to read “servant.” In 1 Timothy 3:8-13, Paul gives specific instructions for how female deacons are to behave, though that does not come through as clearly in English.

8 Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; 9 they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons. 11 Women [deacons] likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well; 13 for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (Italics added)

This passage is first instructing deacons in general, then moves to speaking of women deacons, (the Greek word “deacon” is implied to follow the word “women” in verse 11). So, he is addressing how women deacons should behave in 1 Tim 8:11. Verse 12 may be still only referring to female deacons, or it could be referring to both male and female deacons. That the early Christians understood this to refer to women deaconesses is attested by Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 CE) and Origen (c. 184-253 CE). In Stromata Book 3 Clement writes, “It was through them [female deacons] that the Lord's teaching penetrated also the women's quarters without any scandal being aroused. We also know the directions about women deacons which are given by the noble Paul in his second letter to Timothy.”

During the first few centuries of Christianity, regular councils of bishops and theologians were held to try to create a standardized doctrine for all Christians. At one such council, the Council of Calcedon in 451 we find interesting restrictions placed on women deaconesses, who are referred to as being ordained to that position. For example, the 15th canon reads: “No person shall be ordained deaconess except she be forty years of age. If she shall dishonor her ministry by contracting a marriage, let her be anathema.” So clearly, before this time, ordaining women to the order of a deacon was occurring with women younger than 40, some of them being married. However, it is important to note that the idea that women were to be ordained to this ecclesiastical position was an accepted one—The Council was simply working out the conditions under which it would occur. [1]

Interestingly, ten years earlier, in 441, the Council of Orange (one of the very few councils held in the West) determined that women should not be ordained and the practice should cease. This shows the marked difference between the way Greek and Latin Christianity regarded the status of women. Nominally, the East and West held to the same religion, and they did not officially break apart for several more centuries. However, clearly there were differences in practice between the two cultures, especially regarding women, with Greek Christianity keeping the practice of the primitive church in having women deaconesses and with Latin Christianity eventually abandoning that practice.

Female deacons continued in the Greek speaking eastern area of Christendom much longer than they continued in the Latin west (with the Latin church eventually becoming Roman Catholicism). One force for changing the status of women in the Latin West was a man named Tertullian (c. 155-240 C.E.). He is effectively the only early father who wrote in Latin, and therefore many of his writings become foundational to the Roman Catholic Church, which developed out of Latin Christianity. (Most theologians were from the East and wrote in Greek since that was the linguistic and geographical center for intellectual discussion of that time.) Tertullian wrote quite a lot about and for women, especially in the decades just before and after the year 200 CE.

Before proceeding into an examination of Tertullian’s writings, it is important to make a note about the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Orthodoxy is correct doctrine and orthopraxy is the correct practice of doctrine. Tertullian was very concerned with orthopraxy. His writings both reflected and influenced Latin Christianity’s views on the proper role of women, even if these writings did not always reflect or become official Church doctrine. Tertullian’s views were very much a reflection of the beliefs held among the people of the time rather than authoritative statements from official (Eastern) councils.

Tertullian found the position of women in Christianity problematic. For Tertullian there were two basic examples of women. First, there is the example of Lilith, who was traditionally known as Adam’s first wife. According to non-doctrinal legend, she was created in the same manner that Adam was and was thus equal with him. This led to problems because being equal meant that she wanted to dominate, so she was cast out of the Garden of Eden and became the mother of all the devils and evil spirits that inhabit the earth. However, the second solution to women—making a woman who was supposedly subservient to Adam—didn’t work, either, because Eve was also a problem. One of the passages Tertullian is most famous for is his opening to “On the Apparel of Women.” He wrote:

And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil's gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die.

So Tertullian is stuck. Neither a woman equal to man, nor one who is subservient to man, can reach heaven, for the best that the subservient daughter of Eve can do is hope to merely “expiate that which she derives from Eve;” she cannot rise to the point of conquering Satan. Again, Tertullian is expressing what appears to be a troubling issue among the members of the Latin church, but which was not an issue among the Eastern Church, which was where most official Church doctrine was being codified at the time. As all of the significant early councils occurred in the East, the Latin west wasn’t brought into them until much later. This means that Tertullian remains an important window into the mindset of the west and how it deviated from the east. And despite the Eastern church’s clearly allowing the ordination of women deaconesses, Tertullian, speaking for much of the Latin church, was firmly against it, writing: "It is not permitted to a woman to speak in church. Neither may she teach, baptize, offer, nor claim for herself any function proper to a man, least of all the sacerdotal office" ("On the Veiling of Virgins"). Again, note that Tertullian in around the year 200 CE here is speaking against the commonly accepted eastern practice of ordaining women to an ecclesiastical position, meaning that that practice was fairly well established in the primitive church prior to the second century after Christ’s death.

Throughout the early Christian period (roughly until 800 CE), there are lots of references in ecclesiastical writings to women deacons, which makes it rather baffling that so many people now find it so astonishing to discover that women were ordained to the position of deacon for centuries. It was never a secret. Furthermore, as we have seen from scripture, there were women deacons, however appointed, in the original church when Peter was its head. Women deacons were expected to care specifically for widows, children, and single ladies. They collected offerings for them and distributed those offerings among them. As Clement noted, without female deacons, the spread of Christianity would likely have not occurred quickly because it would not have been seemly for men to teach women. This caused women to be a powerful force for Christianity’s spread.

Some may also be surprised to learn that in the early days of the Restored Church of Jesus Christ, there were deaconesses, too. In 1868 Sarah M. Kimball and Eliza R. Snow wrote a handbook for the Relief Society. It included a section on the duty of the deaconesses. It said, “Deaconesses: It is their duty to open the Hall—adjust seats and to see that the room is in proper order to receive the members—to provide fresh water if necessary—to attend to lights and fire—in short to make everything as pleasant and agreeable as possible for the meetings.” And under the duties of the female Teachers, it says, “It is the duty of Teachers to visit their respective blocks once a month. to inquire after the prosperity and happiness of the members. It is their duty to speak words of wisdom of consolation and peace. It is also their duty to know that the sick are properly taken care of, and if any are in need of assistance from the society—it is the Teachers duty to report to the Pres of their quorum. It is also their duty to receive donations in behalf of the Society, and bring the same to the general meetings, &c.” [2] These sound like activities that the ordained deaconesses of the early Christian church also performed. However, the women who held these offices in the early days of the CoJC were called, not ordained. Whether Joseph Smith, Jr. actually ordained women, or intended to ordain them, is a subject of intense debate that is far too extensive to address here. As it is, the titles of Deaconess and Teacher were given to women of the early restored Church, but not official ordination to those offices.

Today the Relief Society does seem to fulfill many of the roles that Clement of Alexandria specifically praised female deacons for performing. Through the Relief Society, women are cared for, looked after, and ministered to. And while in the primitive church, the women would have also collected donations, hopefully in each ward the bishop counsels with the Relief Society president regarding the distribution of those funds. In fact, recently my family needed to use the Bishop’s Storehouse and it was the Relief Society President who came to my home to help create that order. In doing so, my Relief Society President was undertaking a task women were ordained to perform two thousand years ago. What a marvelous tradition of service!

With this background in my mind, I had to change my initial answer to my daughter. I took her on my lap and told her that the word “deacon” means “one who serves.” So, while it will be eleven years before her baby brother is ordained as a deacon, she is a deacon today. I reminded her of how she brought me a diaper earlier and got ready for church as soon as I asked. She picked up the crayons and helped her teacher set up chairs. She is “one who serves,” a deaconess in her own right, and can serve members of the Church and others without needing a special calling. This made her happy. She was confident in her innate power to serve.

I know this will not the whole answer for her, and there will be many more questions ahead. And sadly, I only have answers that are only slightly less painful than the ones I received at her age. But seeing the Relief Society as an extension of an ancient ordination for women has somehow eased some of that pain. As a member of the Relief Society, I feel connected to a long and ancient tradition established when Christ established the Church. It seems that an important element of the apostasy was convincing women that they were less than and not equal to men. Hopefully, we can reestablish the happy truth that was lost.


[1] Whether the concept of ordination at that time in the primitive church (four centuries after the death of Christ) is the same concept as our current conception of ordination in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a topic beyond this essay. [Back to manuscript].

[2] Sarah M. Kimball and Eliza R. Snow, “Duty of Officers of F R Society,” [ca. May 1868]; Fifteenth Ward, Salt Lake Stake, Relief Society Minutes, Mar. 1868–May 1869, undated entry, pp. 36–39, CHL (LR 2848 32). [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Powers, Emily (2020) "Women Deaconesses in the Primitive Church," SquareTwo, Vol. 13 No. 1 (Spring 2020), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticlePowersDeaconess.html, accessed <give access date>.

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